Socializing doesn’t come easy for everybody. It can feel like dancing: some people seem to innately know the right steps while others struggle not to step on their own feet. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, science bears it out: we’re social animals and being around each other, in small or large doses, can be very good for us. Social activity is a healthy activity. For this week’s Wellness Wednesday, we’re going to take a look at the health risks of loneliness and how being around others can boost your mental and physical health.
Let’s start with the biggest reason why having a social life is so important: it could help you live longer. Researchers have found that loneliness can have the same impact on your mortality as smoking or obesity. Studies indicate that social isolation can increase one’s risk of dying sooner by 29 percent! Scientists are still exploring the causes for this decline in mortality, but they think it’s a combination of factors that could include chronic stress, a drop in health-related activities, exacerbated mental health issues, and a rise in risky behaviors like alcohol abuse and/or driving aggressively.
Studies have found that social relationships can play a very important role in our mental health. For adults over the age of 50, regular socialization (which can include doing social activities as well as having a robust support system) can lead to healthier cognitive function. This can lead to better memory retention, emotional regulation, information processing, and even verbal fluency.
Socialization could also reduce your risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Research on this subject has been promising, showing that older adults who regularly engage with their peers and younger generations display less instances of extreme cognitive decline.
A Stronger Immune System
Negative social relationships (especially toxic or co-dependent ones) can have a corrosive effect on our health due to how they can lead to chronic stress. Stress compromises your body’s ability to regulate its hormones, which can throw several of your vital bodily processes off-track. All of these factors lead to a weakened, more vulnerable immune system. Having healthy relationships reduces your stress levels which in turn leads to a stronger immune system.
Something to keep in mind: the stress of having NO social relationships is very similar to the stress of having bad ones. Being lonely can be just as damaging as feeling disconnected from the people you’re close to.
Love Is A Drug
One of the benefits of socializing and cultivating friends and romantic relationships is that they can trigger your brain’s reward circuitry. Your body produces hormones like dopamine and oxytocin when we interact with other people. The thrill of bumping into an old friend, making a lasting connection, crushing hard on someone, going on a date, watching a bad movie with friends and laughing along: all these activities can release waves of pleasure in your body through a steady drip of hormones from your reward circuitry. These hormones don’t just make you feel good; they also can reduce physical pain and stress.
It can be hard to motivate yourself to do healthy activities on your own. Having friends that you can do stuff with can be a great way to keep yourself accountable. Having a gym buddy or a hiking group gives you a reason to get out of the house and do something good for yourself while spending time with people whose company you enjoy. It can also give you a healthy sense of competition as your friends encourage you to keep up with or surpass their efforts.